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Movie Review: Ex Machina

MV5BMTUxNzc0OTIxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3NzU2NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_Writer and director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, missed for review upon its April 24 release and suggested to me by a sharp reader on Twitter, is too slow and talky but it has a point and the point, however limited by the story of humanizing a machine, is thoughtfully made. As with the best of these movies about artificial intelligence (AI), from Silent Running (1972) to last year’s Her, it resonates in terms of measuring intelligent man’s loneliness in space and time. But it’s based on a flawed premise mixing the metaphysical with the manmade.

At least the carefully filmed Ex Machina, which is wisely sketched in thin lines more than drawn, almost as a cinematically styled stage production, integrates its theme with a strong and effective finishing touch. In this sense, the moral of the simple yet evolving story of a thinker who creates a machine and tests it with a programmer, has more in common with the best science fiction, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). To what extent man becomes like a machine when he takes machinery—fundamentally, technology—on faith is explored here in linear fashion.

Ex Machina, which features Alicia Vikander as the automaton and Domhnall Gleeson as the technician (reuniting from the vacuous Anna Karenina), led by the scene-stealing Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Agora) as the enigmatic inventor, starts off with the necessary mystery of an adventure launched by the tech company’s founder, winding slowly but engagingly to Gleeson’s young computer geek working on the new discovery. Isaac’s character is guarded and understandably reticent about sharing his creation. But one senses there’s something else going on. So does Gleeson’s geek, who rises, or falls, to his true, deepest nature. How this happens ought to interest anyone who thinks that basing decisions on algorithms programmed by humans, such as whether to see a movie from an estimated aggregation of people’s opinions on Rotten Tomatoes, is a good idea.

Set in a remote region of the world with rivers, glaciers and waterfalls surrounding one thoroughly high-tech house, Ex Machina plays itself out with style as the two men navigate the replica of a woman. In this second part, the film falters and sags with too much sameness. Then, just when it’s becoming an excuse to ogle and fawn over mannequin-like machines that resemble bony and emaciated nude women in pornography favoring poverty-stricken females, Ex Machina scores a plot twist and makes a point. Stripped to its essentials in a movie that’s both overly simple and ponderous, writer and director Garland offers a stylized warning against what might be described as the pale, narcissistic nihilism, which redounds to faith, of today’s top technologists. They might be called technologians. Ex Machina, playing like a more intimate Blade Runner (1982) prequel with touches of an upmarket Liquid Sky (1982), posits what might happen if they came to rule the world.

Movie Review: San Andreas

SanAndreasPosterThe uncomplicated San Andreas from Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema is not really about the big one, the fault line, the seismology or the typical disaster movie themes of enlightenment through trauma, trial and error. It’s about rescuing one’s values at the end of the world.

Get and check plot particulars elsewhere—Cal Tech’s entrenched scholars are already Tweeting about its flaws—and take San Andreas as it is: exciting, adventurous and family-themed. See it if and only if you dare.

A Los Angeles, California, search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) make their way together from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter. The characters are plain and the performances are good. The visual effects are also good. They’re not overblown.

Director Brad Peyton gets a few key points wrong but overall does right by his theme that when the world’s coming to an end, one ought to grab hold of one’s selfish values and adopt the can-do American spirit. This is the California, especially Southern California, ethos, and it is well depicted in San Andreas. Layering epic scenes of mass death and destruction without minimizing life is hard to do and, partly for this reason, I am not a fan of these types of movies. If they advertise how to rescue and respond rationally, that’s fine. San Andreas ruptures and repairs well to this end. Having been in a major earthquake (read my thoughts on that experience here), I think this movie is an extreme and realistic recreation.

The movie’s mistakes are serious, very serious, in the case of an architect character (Ioan Gruffadd) who inexplicably goes bad. Everyone responds to the movie’s initial quake, one of several record-breaking temblors, aftershocks and foreshocks, at the Hoover Dam as if it’s just another breaking news alert, which is not at all realistic. Situational coincidences pile up faster than the bodies and rubble. The callousness of mass death is not lost on this reviewer—skyscrapers topple in seconds while action centers on certain characters—but this is part of San Andreas‘ point; dramatizing that one must choose to think, especially and urgently when all around is coming to an end.

Its point is to think fast, really. The daughter the married-but-separated couple try to save (Alexandra Daddario) embodies this trait, having learned from her fireman dad (Johnson) and she picks up a couple of heroes along the way, one of which is a very sharp fellow (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave) thinks clearly and fast, too, as a heroic Cal Tech seismologist who reads biographies of Albert Einstein. At its best, San Andreas is an exaggeration on themes in the perfectly well done Twister (1996). It celebrates those who challenge nature. At its worst, it smears the productive, in the form of the movie’s architect, a man who is tested and responds, if ineffectively, and is cavalierly turned into a monster and dispensed with in the movie’s harshest scene.

For the moralizing against the architect, it is worth noting that, during the emergency, the government worker (Johnson) ditches his taxpayer-funded job and his oath to serve public safety to put his own immediate interest first. This raises interesting questions that San Andreas never answers, such as what people should do as so-called first responders abandon their posts, leave the public in danger and tend to their own values, which is what the architect is castigated for doing.

The can-do spirit comes through, thanks to Johnson, Gugino and Daddario and supporting cast, so see San Andreas for the thrill and experience in consideration of what would be your ethics in an emergency.

Movie Review: Aloha

AlohaposterThe idiosyncratic Aloha, which is apparently being denounced by collectivists in Hawaii on the same grounds that Islamic fundamentalists denounce depictions of Mohammed, is an unusually modern and mythical film. Aloha—a Hawaiian word which means hello and goodbye—is also refreshing.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (Singles, Say Anything, Vanilla Sky), a naturalistic artist who welcomed the press and introduced Aloha, the story is a love triangle centered upon a notorious military contractor (Bradley Cooper, American Sniper) who returns to the Aloha state. He is a lonely man in search of finding his place in today’s modern, chaotic world of military-industrial complexities and the wiping away of capitalism in favor of state-sponsored favoritism, though the picture doesn’t put it that way.

In competition to seduce this rare, legendary military man of the mind are two women who each, in their own particular way, reflect his most deeply held virtue, integrity, and Sony‘s Aloha mines, in gentle strokes, pictures and scenes, what it means to integrate man and myth. One woman is an Air Force pilot (Emma Stone, Birdman) whose energy and idealism invigorates him. The other is a housewife (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris) whose past with him foretells his future. Aloha is a witty movie, with good humor thanks to a supporting cast that includes Danny McBride, Danielle Rose Russell, John Krasinski, Alec Baldwin and, happily reunited from last year’s benevolent St. Vincent, Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray. Everyone is excellent. McAdams gives what may be her best performance.

Cooper leads Aloha all the way. His character is strong without swagger. He is introspective without angst. He faces conflict head on and, while the plot points are as hard to swallow as the reality of today’s headlines, he makes the resolution poignant and meaningful. His character is an idealist challenged by the reality of the times in which we live, facing questions—echoed by the housewife’s son (Lieberher)—about everything that’s right and wrong under the stars and the whole wide world. Crowe’s less quirky than usual, but still quirky, in the screenplay, which is meticulously planted with themes about love, life and family and what payload if any one chooses to carry and bear. These are hard times, whatever one’s state in paradise, and hard questions. Cooper’s man, balancing women, island natives and myths and military he-men, must face them alone.

Aloha‘s eye-widening theme that each one of us is, in a sense, on an island under the sky, eyes looking up at the stars, striving to answer what it means (and whether it’s possible) to own the sky—in order to own one’s place in the world—is displayed without explicit detail. But it is there, in the soft, caressing winds of the Pacific, the gray skies, images and rocket ships of what amounts to a thoughtful, and very funny, mood piece about life. The love triangle and plot about a pseudo-private spaceship launch from Hawaii are simple in these neatly arranged scenes, pictures and performances. Cameron Crowe’s simplicity is his hidden strength, however, and always has been—especially with his astute sense of music.

“You don’t want it to be taut,” one man says to a child in the movie’s most haunting line about life and the art of blending hello with goodbye, “you want it to billow.” Mr. Crowe’s Aloha—with a front page testifying to man’s greatest moment right there in that scene—boils, rises and flows.

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

MV5BMTQ4OTgzNTkwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzI3MDE3NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_In the tradition of The Lone Ranger and John Carter, Disney lets co-producer, co-writer and director and two-time Oscar® winner Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles) loose on its theme park concept, Tomorrowland. The result is an incomprehensible clunker starring Academy Award® winner George Clooney. The conception and execution is so poor that it’s hard to pinpoint where it goes wrong.

On the upside, as with Bird’s Iron Giant and Incredibles, the central theme that idealism and free choice power the future is a fine idea and the film’s second half is better. But this is not saying much in a movie as broad and convoluted as Tomorrowland. Everything is short, fast, overdone, fragmented and demographically driven. Anything decent in the plot or thematic premise is eviscerated in the mania.

Clooney’s Frank pairs with a girl named Casey (Britt Robertson). Both characters are less developed than a TV commercial character. They enter what can only be described as a Saturday morning serial or TV cartoon world of robots, explosions and rubbery facial expressions. Without giving away the plot in this 12 and under focused movie, which bears no resemblance to what was once Disneyland’s most exciting place to visit, the future may be lost to those with bad intentions, overpopulation, war and the weather, broadly suggested here as climate change. It’s up to Frank and Casey to end the threat.

But it takes an hour to come to that conflict and it’s flimsy and undefined. Add a strange relationship between Clooney’s character and a little girl with a British accent (Raffey Cassidy) that drains Tomorrowland of the tiniest plot progression, too many characters, terrible acting and childish humor and the film feels overbaked with the wrong ingredients. The screenplay by Disney-owned ABC’s Lost writer and co-creator Damon Lindelof and Bird, from a story by Lindelof, Bird and a magazine TV critic named Jeff Jensen, Tomorrowland has none of Walt Disney’s futurism.

With Hugh Laurie (House) as an evil scientist named Nix, who dresses like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, the girl powered plot’s main problem is its total disregard for the idea of innovation. These inventors and scientists are more like bipolar patients running amok than real, hardworking people of ability excited about solving humanity’s problems. Real inventors are enthusiastic about explaining what they’ve made and why they’ve made it. Not this team. They’re constantly saying “now what?” to one another before flinging themselves mindlessly into the next microsecond-long scene or situation. The music makes the movie feel like a frantic cartoon for tots. So do the broad faces and vocal impressions. No one has the slightest interest in showing how stuff works, let alone how it’s made and why it’s necessary or might be fun to use.

But this is why Walt Disney, referenced in the beginning with a passing homage to his work for the 1964 World’s Fair, including the Carousel of Progress attraction’s musical theme, made Tomorrowland and, in the deepest sense, Disneyland. Here, that visionary impetus has been reduced to Clooney’s character whining: “Do I have to explain everything?!?” Heck, his annoying character doesn’t have the patience to conceive of something much less make it and demonstrate how it works. Walt loved showing how stuff works. No one in this movie plausibly would have the curiosity for new knowledge and reverence for the manmade to look twice at a futurist attraction at Tomorrowland, except possibly Laurie’s villainous character.

That’s a shame because what remains of a theme, which is possibly Bird’s idea, could have been made grand and just when the world needs it most. An overstuffed, overdeveloped movie with battlebots, ecological windmills and a magical tuning fork—none of them explained, explored or interesting—pulls off the impossible and makes Tomorrowland seem shrill, chaotic and downright dull.

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max 4 posterAny doubt that dystopian movies are prologue to today’s increasingly bleak reality—the future that was depicted in the early nihilistic films—is erased with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in a motor gang quasi-snuff film series which opens as news breaks of motor gangs gunning people down to death.

Series director George Miller’s highly praised fetish-action film is economical in depicting a straight death chase featuring near-silent leads Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) as slave pen refugees on the run. That previous sentence is the essential point of all I have to say about this action-packed movie. The rest of this is a review born of cultural observation and commentary. Some readers might say my reviews are all like that. This one is more so.

I saw the new Mad Max movie in Hollywood’s fabled Cinerama Dome, where I’ve seen the comparatively worst (Avatar) and best (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, How the West Was Won) pictures, which always enhances a moviegoing experience. Mad Max 4, as I call it, is not an exception. Every explosion and gunshot is exaggerated in the dome. Mad Max 4, which begins with a short narration by Hardy’s Max character, a mentally damaged character to the extent he’s a character, is a sensory assault based on the most primitive characterizations. The world is going and has gone primitive, in reality and on screen, so the faith-laced Mad Max series comes full circle in terms of life imitating art.

What once was like an odd blend of sexualized violence, Mad Max (1979), taking off as a cult film on cable TV at the peak of the punk rock era, when nihilism seemed a quaint, distant notion, became popular with subsequent sequels (The Road Warrior, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome) and influential with an entire genre that, with each Terminator or other death premise picture, became insidiously more realistic. While the death premise genre’s dystopianism was irresistibly recognizable, fueling the realism and popularity, audience response to the plots—which grew more callous and desensitized in proportion to the dumbing down of the plots—assured that more such empty, bloated vessels would get made and released. Mad Max 4, a tidy piece of psychotic punk nostalgia, finally achieves critical and commercial success as much as it represents the rise of freakish death culture that loomed a few decades ago.

The death cult’s future is here, tracked by this final cut of Wagnerian rock opera with touches of Planet of the Apes and every other Mad Max movie—with nods to its many inexplicable symbols, marks and horrors—with Miller’s same vacant philosophy intact. As Hardy’s mentally singed Max meets Theron’s avenging heroine, and they bond over a quintet of supermodel types held as birthing vessels for a dictator, the ensuing chase as the tyrant seeks to recover his breeding slavemistresses is the type of cleverly conceived, nonstop, overwrought action of the other movies, mostly reminiscent of The Road Warrior though any of this could be cut from any Fast and Furious film, with spikes, flames and gussied up cars, trucks and bikes added.

The bad guys have faith in the dictator-deity, who keeps the masses under control by treating water as a scarcity, and they’re eager to sacrifice themselves like mujahadeen for the sake of going to an afterlife. The good guys have been reduced to physically or mentally deficient pieces of flesh fighting for survival, with no real values at stake, though a few cling to boxes of material possessions from bygone days. They, too, usually end up maimed, dying or dead. Mad Max: Fury Road is, in this sense, like an anti-movie movie; the opposite of a Cecil B. DeMille epic with grand ideals and larger than life sets, characters and action. Its ideas—faith, hope and a weary sense of charity—are as ancient as the barbarians are primitive. But the big sets, hyped up action and relative intelligibility of the plot have everyone, critic and audience alike, treating this nihilistic fare like it’s as good as King Kong (1933).

It isn’t. But when the cineplex choices in a dying civilization are navel-gazing movies such as Birdman or idiotic movies like Avengers 2, and the world is busting out with mass murder every other day, including today’s motorcycle massacre in Waco, Texas, Mad Max 4 seems suddenly relevant and pretty close to reality. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which, judging by the mindlessness of the audience response at the Cinerama Dome, goes unabated until the lights finally go out. Mad Max 4 is a skillfully made two hours of pictures about nothing but shopworn slogans and hardcore primitivism for a public that seeks to escape its descent into mass murdering death cults by seeing movies about mass murdering death cults.

I realize that the fanboy is likely to breathlessly object: ‘But, but, but Mad Max refuses to submit to being branded and he’s, he’s, he’s like really like a hero.” But the hyperventilating critic, or fanboy, as usual, is wrong. Mad Max—the character, the franchise, the new movie—is as empty as he was when he was introduced by George Miller in 1979. The world has simply plunged during that period of time to the point that most people no longer know the difference. What was parodied as primitivism 36 years ago is dramatized as primitivism today and closer than ever to becoming reality.